"The Woodsman": A Review
The Woodsman is one gutsy little film.
Directed by Nicole Kassell and based on a one-act play by Steven Fechter (who shares screenplay credit with Kassell), this quiet, lean film tells the story of Walter (Kevin Bacon), a pedophile released from prison after 12 years for the molestation of young girls. He moves into a small apartment, lands a job at a lumberyard and does his best to control his most reprehensible impulses.
Needless to say, we are not in the realm of popcorn movie. The Woodsman is disturbing and memorable. But it challenges its audience without resorting to sensationalism or cheap exploitation.
And at its core, The Woodsman is not that very different from many dramas of internal conflict. The laconic Walter's quandary resembles many a noir protagonist. He is a haunted by his own demons and awful past, and he desperately wants to move beyond it. From a dramatist's perspective, however, The Woodman takes the ballsy move of upping the ante, making its flawed hero guilty of the most vile sort of crime.
And that's the tightrope The Woodsman walks, presenting Walter as he struggles to reintegrate into society with the help of a co-worker named Vicki, (Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon's real-life wife), a tough loner nursing her own psychological scars. Aside from this tense relationship, Walter's only other meaningful interaction with others involves therapy sessions and visits from his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) and a wary police detective (Mos Def). We are encouraged to sympathize with Walter -- who wants to be normal, he tells his therapist -- even if we don't forgive or forget his sins.
The Woodsman is the feature-film debut of New York University film school graduate Kassell. Like another NYU film school grad, Maria Full of Grace director Joshua Marston, this is a superb drama that pursues an often-overlooked slice of social consciousness without preachiness or pandering.
It's a remarkable achievement, although it is not without occasional missteps. A central conceit of the story, that Walter would end up renting an apartment just across the street from an elementary school, strains credibility. Still, Kassel lays everything out with such a documentarian's feel, we really don't spend much time questioning it.
Acting is central. The cast is unifromly excellent -- even Bratt -- but The Woodsman is clearly Kevin Bacon's finest hour.
He reveals an amazing complexity in a particularly memorable scene. Walter, who has hung up a bird feeder outside his apartment window, meets and chats up an 11-year-old girl who is bird-watching in a neighborhood park. For the first time in this movie, we see Walter let his guard down; he flashes a charming smile, jokes with the girl and even expresses interest in her birding hobby. It unnerves us because Walter is a pedophile, of course, but it is also the only time we see our introverted protagonist at his most friendly -- and when he is clearly "on the prowl," even as he is tormented by the meaning of his actions.
Will Walter succumb to his dangerous old ways?
It is a question the filmmakers handle with honesty and sensitivity. Walter might not be a good man, but he wants to be a good man. Beneath his dangerous compulsions is a conscience; the dynamic between these competing entities makes The Woodsman truly courageous and, at times, extraordinary. Milk Plus boasts a solid review on the film.
On the other hand, there is Being Julia, which we felt compelled to check out after Annette Bening got all Grande Dame on our itchy American asses during the Golden Globes for her portrayal of a diva of the London stage in the Depression days.
So should an actress win an award for being the only appetizing ingredient in turd stew? Being Julia is clumsily staged, amateurishly shot, creakily written, pathetically acted (excluding Bening and the always watchable Jeremy Irons) and filled with seeming inconsistencies of character. This is the sort of movie Robert Altman would make if the old Hollywood hippie ever got too stoned on Humboldt County weed and subsequently forgot where he'd left the script.
Being Julia is a big, boring bust. But you know how weird Academy Award politics can be. Bening just might win over Hilary Swank in the superior Million Dollar Baby simply because Swank in 1999 won for Boys Don't Cry, unfairly defeating Bening in the terrific American Beauty.